How To Lower Cholesterol

How To Lower Cholesterol

Keeping cholesterol levels in check is important for overall health, as high cholesterol levels have been linked to conditions including heart disease and stroke

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy fat, with 75% made in the body by our liver and the rest coming from the food we eat. For decades, cholesterol was believed to be the enemy when it came to heart health, but the latest research suggests it may not be as simple as we first thought.

Being fat, cholesterol has to be transported by a carrier in the blood – these carriers are protein complexes called lipoproteins. You’re probably familiar with them because they’re often confusingly referred to as ‘bad’ cholesterol or Low-Density Lipoproteins (LDL) and ‘good’ cholesterol or High-Density Lipoproteins (HDL). As with most things, it’s not as simple as that – these lipoproteins are not cholesterol, and both LDL and HDL will be present in a variety of different forms – the smaller, denser of which appear to pose the greater risk. Your unique mix of LDL and HDL and their subtypes depends on your combination of genes and your lifestyle.

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Why do we need cholesterol?

Although we’ve grown up to fear cholesterol, we do actually need it for our bodies to function properly – in fact, it’s fundamental to life. That’s because cholesterol is crucial for forming cell walls, producing hormones like estrogen and testosterone, helping repair nerves, producing bile so we can digest and absorb the fats in our diet, and making the ‘sunshine vitamin’, vitamin D. What’s more, cholesterol improves our memory and helps us feel good because it makes the mood-boosting hormone, serotonin.

How do I know if I have healthy cholesterol?

Your blood fats, including cholesterol level, can be measured by a simple blood test carried out by your GP. You can read more about how to get your cholesterol checked on the NHS website. You should ask your GP for a cholesterol test if you have not had a test before and you’re over 40 if you’re overweight if high cholesterol or heart problems run in your family, or if you have a condition called familial hypercholesterolemia.

What are Triglycerides?

Cholesterol is not the only type of fat in your blood. If you’ve had a blood test to check your cholesterol levels, you’re likely to have also been told your triglyceride level. Triglycerides are the main form of fats in the body and we use them to store energy in our cells. Too much of this fat in your blood is an important, independent risk factor for heart disease.

Do dietary fats cause high cholesterol?

Alongside cholesterol, fat has long been treated as the enemy. Saturated fat is frequently vilified as it has been linked to cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol. Red meat, butter, cheese, burgers, and sausages, are high in saturated fat, as are ghee, coconut, and palm oils. A diet high in saturated fat can increase blood fats, including triglycerides, as well as increase your risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke. However, recent studies are now suggesting that the saturated fats in some foods such as dairy products, including cheese, do not appear to be as harmful as once thought. This may be because other nutrients in dairy, like calcium, may modify the effects on blood fats such as triglycerides. So what dietary aspects should we be focusing on for heart health?

Increasing evidence points to overeating sugary, refined carbs as a cause of inflammation, raised insulin levels, high blood pressure, and higher cholesterol and triglyceride levels. You’re likely to have also heard of man-made fats called trans fats – these are unsaturated fats in our diet that behave more like saturated fat, only worse because the body can’t recognize them. They are found in processed foods and takeaways and are the worst type of fat for raising cholesterol levels. You can avoid them by cooking as much as possible from scratch and checking labels for hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated, and semi-hydrogenated vegetable fats or shortening.

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What counts as high fat and low fat for a packaged product?

Total fat:

High: more than 17.5g of fat per 100g. (Packaging may be color-coded red)
Low: 3g of fat or less per 100g. (Packaging may be color-coded green)

Saturated fat:
Look out for ‘saturates’ or ‘sat fat’ on the label: this tells you how much-saturated fat is in the food.

High: more than 5g saturates per 100g. (Packaging may be color-coded red)
Low: 1.5g saturates or less per 100g. (Packaging may be color-coded green)

If the amount of fat or saturated fat per 100g is in-between these figures, that’s a medium level, and the packaging may be color-coded amber.

Foods that lower cholesterol

There are some foods that are especially beneficial for heart health, so include these in your diet on a regular basis. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Include healthy fats and limit saturated fats

Overall, aim for a diet with plenty of mono-unsaturated fat and omega-3 fatty acids – so foods like nuts, seeds, avocado, and olive oil, as well as one to two portions of oily fish (such as sardines, mackerel, salmon, and trout) per week. A Mediterranean-style diet is a good one to aim for.

It’s important to remember to stick to Reference Intakes (RI) – the guideline daily amounts for nutrients like fats. Aim to have no more than about 1/3 of the fat in your daily diet being saturated, with the remainder being healthy fats including the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in olive oil, rapeseed oil, avocado, unsalted nuts, and seeds.

Recipes using healthy fats…
Almond nut butter
Fish tagine with saffron & almonds
Avocado salad
Chunky tomato & avocado salsa

  1. Include dairy foods in moderation

There’s no need to be overly concerned about dairy because the fats in these foods aren’t as harmful to blood cholesterol as first thought – as long as you enjoy them in modest amounts.

  1. Eat 2-4 portions of oats daily

There’s plenty of evidence to show that oats help manage cholesterol levels. They’re rich in a soluble fiber called beta-glucan, which attaches to cholesterol and inhibits its absorption. A daily intake of about 3g of beta-glucan is considered an adequate amount to make a difference.

Try these recipes:
Apple & linseed porridge
Vanilla-almond chia breakfast bowl
Irish soda bread
Seeded oatcakes

  1. Include sources of soluble fiber

Other food sources, rich in useful soluble fiber, include barley, sweet potatoes, beans, peas, and lentils.

  1. Include oily fish up to twice a week

Eat oily fish up to twice a week or more regularly if you have a history of heart problems. Omega-3 fats found in oily fish can help lower harmful blood triglycerides including herring, mackerel, pilchards, sardines, salmon, trout, and fresh tuna.

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Lifestyle factors to reduce cholesterol

Don’t forget, as well as your diet, your day-to-day lifestyle plays a big part in heart health. In particular, smoking, being overweight (especially carrying extra weight around the middle), stress, inactivity, a low intake of fruit and vegetables, a diet high in refined carbs and sugars, and too much alcohol all contribute to your risk of heart disease. Furthermore, having high blood pressure, diabetes or a family history of early heart disease puts you at greater risk – so make it your business to know your numbers.

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